2005 was a banner year for both impressive debuts and vast improvements from good artists. Remember when you were the last person to hear about Arcade Fire last year? Don’t be that guy again. Check out the operatic indie pop, literary rock and swaggering rap that make up the top ten albums of the year.
10. John Vanderslice “Pixel Revolt”
A deceptively smooth exterior masks incredible depth on this fifth outing from popster Vanderslice, a better storyteller than even Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. A stunning collection of 14 character studies of anti-government militants, detectives, soldiers and rabbits, “Pixel Revolt” proves (through repeated listens) to be 2005’s slept-on classic — perhaps even the second-string alternate for Neutral Milk Hotel’s comparably hi-fi “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
9. Young Jeezy “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101”
The most impressive rap debut of the year, “Thug Motivation 101” is surprising because it’s incredibly winning. Despite being patently ridiculous at times — just take a look at his cocaine-slang mascot, a snowman with angry eyebrows — his lazily charismatic delivery convinces the audience to forgive all. Not to mention that “Go Crazy” and “And Then What” were the second- and third-best rap singles of the year. (No 1: Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly.”)
8. Okkervil River “Black Sheep Boy”
Songwriter Will Sheff, inspired by Tim Jardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” (delicately covered here) has written the second-best concept album of the year, an honest and brutally emotional alt-country gem that puts its peers, in particular Bright Eyes, to shame. “Black Sheep Boy” is Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu singing on a Wilco concept album, but better.
7. Kanye West “Late Registration”
Everything on “Late Registration” is poppier, tighter and better composed than on West’s debut. The entire record is a crossover hit: West and co-producer Jon Brion have cooked up melodies and beats that aren’t so much exceptionally skillful as they are wholly undeniable. “Late Registration” proves to be musically Tarantino-esque, drawn liberally from strong source material yet ultimately, uniquely and wonderfully West’s own.
6. Architecture in Helsinki “In Case We Die”
The quirkiest, most accomplished collaborative pop album this year, “In Case We Die” is colorful and dramatic — like the score to a bizarre musical that was otherwise never scripted. The male-female vocals shout and coo, the horns toot appropriately and everything is just-cute-enough. Sweet without being cloying, the Australian octet craft a concise yet adorable opus.
5. Sleater-Kinney “The Woods”
This may look like the same Sleater-Kinney, but it’s a completely different animal. From the immediate and sharply distorted introductory note, “The Woods” outdoes most “cock-rock” while disproving the term’s inherent sexism. This record is loud and aggressive, melodic and raw, reminiscent of both arena rock and reggae-influenced punk like the Clash. With “The Woods,” Sleater-Kinney has recorded their first truly indispensable album, demonstrating a talent that ought to garner far more attention.
4. The Hold Steady “Separation Sunday”
The Hold Steady takes all the promise of last year’s “Almost Killed Me” and distills it into 11 perfect tracks about cocaine and Catholicism. Vocalist and Minneapolis-transplant Craig Finn is a bar-band storyteller, and the E Street Band-esque guitar-bass-drums-keys backup irrefutably insists that “five guys in a band” is a cliche — not because it’s a stale format, but because all the other bands suck.
3. The New Pornographers “Twin Cinema”
“Twin Cinema” sounds a lot like the Pornographers’ two previous albums. Usually this would mean that it’s redundant, but Western Canada’s power-pop all-stars sound more refined and multifaceted, even as they replicate the feel of their earlier work. The apparent lack of ego in this collaboration is nothing short of shocking; each necessary piece of the Pornographers’ puzzle simply brings her or his best to this astonishingly charming album.
2. Wolf Parade “Apologies to the Queen Mary”
These pals of the Arcade Fire seemed overhyped, that is, until they actually lived up to the press. On the whole, the album’s flow is a bit stilted, but in 2005 — certainly a year for songs rather than albums — those on “Apologies” outshined almost all others. “I’ll Believe in Anything,” the most beautiful and desperate love song since Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” is only the best of the twelve heartfelt Modest Mouse-inspired tracks.
1. Sufjan Stevens “Illinois”
Orchestral indie rock of the highest order, Stevens’ paean to the Land of Lincoln dips and soars with emotion. The album wryly chronicles all things Illinois, from the blindly celebratory (his tribute to the 1893 Columbian Exposition “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!”) to the somewhat less congratulatory (songs about John Wayne Gacy and the elimination of the Black Hawks) through 22 beautiful genre-spanning tracks.